We are coming to the end of our series on the ministry priorities that Jesus spells out in Matthew chapter 25. He says that those who feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the prisoner, are actually doing all those things to him personally. And that conversely when we don’t feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we are actually ignoring Jesus himself. It’s pretty strong language.
This week we are going to think about caring for the sick. In Matthew 25, Jesus doesn’t ask us to heal the sick, although there are miracles of healing recorded throughout the Bible. He just asks us to be with them, to care for them, to visit them, to comfort them.
We’ve talked a lot about judgment in this series so far, the stories we tell ourselves about other people, the assumptions we make about their lives and their situations. It was not uncommon in the past for sickness to be taken as a sign of sin in one’s life, so if you were ill, people were actually wondering what you had done to deserve it. I know most of us in this room don’t think that way about most illnesses. But there are still some illnesses that I bet we would attach some judgment. Lung or throat or mouth cancer in someone who smokes? Liver disease in someone with alcoholism? The many ailments that can come from addiction to different drugs. Addiction itself, although thank God I think we are starting to move on that. Maybe even some of the health problems that come along with carrying extra body weight. We have compassion for those situations, but let’s be honest, in some cases it is also mixed with some judgment. Or at the very least, less compassion than we might have if we assumed they weren’t at “fault” in any way.
We started this series with Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger, which is straight out of the Old Testament where God tells the ancient Hebrews to welcome the strangers, foreigners, and immigrants among them, because they had been strangers in Egypt. When we talked about visiting the prisoners, we reminded ourselves that no one is intrinsically worth more than anyone else. We are kind to others because God has been kind to us. All of these commands of Jesus are rooted in a radical empathy that sees the suffering of other people to be as important as our own suffering or the suffering of our loved ones.
My mom and I had a great conversation this week when we pulled up at the end of the exit ramp and there was a man standing there asking for money. Neither one of us had any cash and so we didn’t do anything. But then we talked about how sometimes we don’t give because we know that our $5 isn’t going to fix his situation. Or we don’t give because we know that our $5 can be leveraged by an agency to help more people. We white middle class educated American women like to be effective. And that’s all fine and well and good. But Jesus doesn’t ask us to solve problems. He doesn’t ask us to change people’s lives. He doesn’t ask us to leverage our dollars. He asks us to feed individual people who are hungry, with whom we have come face to face. He asks us to notice who is alone and ask them to sit with us and our friends. He asks us to care for people who are sick without judging them or having any feeling about their illness other than compassion.
Are we called to work on fixing things? Yes we are. But honestly there’s A LOT of stuff that we are not going to fix. And so we are called to just be in it with people in the meantime. I know you’ve heard the somewhat cheesy story: a child and parent are walking on the seashore and there’s a bunch of starfish washed up on shore and the child is chucking them one by one back into the water. And the parent says, “Why are you doing that? You can’t put them all back in so it doesn’t matter.” And the child says, “It matters to this one.”
Mother Teresa didn’t heal people. She just made sure that sick people didn’t die alone. I know you’re not Mother Teresa and neither am I. But I have a quote up in my office from her that says, “If you can’t feed 100 people, then just feed one.”
One of the most powerful and important things I think we the church can do in this time is to care for people who have mental health conditions. Christians that would never tell someone with diabetes to pray more will tell someone with clinical depression to pray more. Beloved ones, if your pancreas doesn’t work like God designed it to, get some insulin. And if your serotonin receptors don’t work like God designed them to, get yourself some Bupropion. Pray, and take your meds. Come to church, and go see your therapist. Give in the offering here and give to an organization like NAMI. Because these fearfully and wonderfully made bodies of ours are also fallen and everything in the world breaks down. If you are sick, physically or mentally, that is nothing to be ashamed of and anyone who is going to judge you is stupid. I don’t know how else to say that. You need to start listening to some other voices.
We are very blessed to be part of a denomination that is constantly pushing forward on issues of inclusion. There is a United Church of Christ Mental Health Network that works to reduce stigma and promote the inclusion of people with mental illnesses/brain disorders and their families in the life, leadership and work of congregations and organizations. Through the UCC Mental Health Network, congregations can go through the process to become WISE Congregations, which mean welcoming, inclusive, supportive and engaged with and for those who are affected by mental health challenges. This is a process and a designation, just like Open and Affirming. We have not started this process, and frankly, I can’t lead everything. But if you feel called to explore how Zion could become a WISE congregation, I would be happy to help you.
As Michael Tucker pointed out in his testimony last week, having one of these experiences that Jesus mentioned means you are likely to have more than one. If you don’t have enough food, you probably also don’t have access to clean water all the time. If you are imprisoned, you likely also have a mental health condition. Life is hard. And it’s harder when people judge you for having a hard life. But it’s easier when other people care and when they show up with help, not to solve your problem, but to get you through this day or maybe even this moment. Because it matters to that one. It matters to Jesus. Amen.